Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Around 100 divers, dressed in yellow "Free Nasheed" T-shirts, participated in an underwater protest off the coast of the capital city Male on April 12, 2015 as they called for the immediate release of jailed former President Mohamed Nasheed. (Photo: Ismail Humaam Hamid and Mohamed ‘Sindhi’ Seeneen via @ZaheenaR)

A Climate Hero Languishes in Prison. Let's Fight to Get Him Out.

Mohamed Nasheed—who literally stood against the tides of rising oceans to sound the climate alarm—was ousted as the president of the Maldives during a military coup in 2012 and now faces 13 years in jail on an absurd series of politically-motivated charges.

Bill McKibben

The underwater pictures from the Maldives this weekend brought back a staggering rush of memories.

In 2009, when 350.org was still a fledgling organization and not the world’s largest grassroots climate campaign, we’d called for our first global day of action. All around the world people rallied in iconic locations, from the summit of Antarctica’s highest mountain to the middle of Times Square. There were 5,200 demonstrations in all, in what CNN called ‘the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history.’ But maybe the most memorable was from the Maldives.

Or rather, from below the Maldives. Where newly elected president Mohamed Nasheed, who had taught his cabinet to scuba dive, convened their regular meeting underwater, on the edge of their threatened coral reef. There they signed a proclamation to the UN, asking that it work to lower the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

That picture helped bring home the newly dawning truth of global warming—that entire nations like the low-lying Maldives were on the edge of extinction. It also marked Nasheed as the most committed head of state in the climate fight.

But that’s not all Nasheed represented. He’s also the Mandela of the Indian Ocean, the man who through long years of nonviolent resistance freed his nation from a long tyranny and won its first democratic election.

That thug government just receded into the shadows, though, and a few years later overthrew Nasheed in a military coup. And now it has jailed him for 13 years on absurd charges of terrorism after a trial that would have delighted Kafka—among other things, the presiding judges were also witnesses against the accused.

The long-suffering people of the Maldives are fighting back, though—peacefully, with massive demonstrations night after night in the streets of Male. And over the weekend, a hundred of them dove down to the reef with scuba tanks, and with banners demanding Nasheed’s release. The picture—a purposeful echo of the moment when he made the world notice his embattled archipelago—should alert the planet once more.

There are signs of international support beginning to emerge. Maybe most significantly the renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (yes, that Clooney) has joined his defense team, bringing both great skill and a bright spotlight. But much more is needed. 

For one thing, though Nasheed and his colleagues have not called for a tourist boycott, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a conscience wanting to support the goons running the country at the moment. Its beaches are indeed beautiful—but they will be more beautiful once the Maldives have returned to democratic rule.

Our leaders, too, need to act. India, America, the EU all need to be firm in the demand for Nasheed’s safety (there are great fears for his life as he returns to the prison where he’s already spent so many years) and for his release.

For those of us in the worldwide climate movement, this is not just a moment to stand by one of our own. It’s also a good reminder that we need working, inclusive, democratic governments if we are to make real progress. The autocrats now running the Maldives of course abandoned the Nasheed government’s remarkable plan to turn the nation carbon-neutral and even offered to drill for oil in the surrounding waters; as in so many places around the world, tyranny and fossil fuel have a friendly working relationship.

The Maldives is existentially imperiled by a rising ocean. But before it can fully deal with that predicament it needs its voice back. At the moment that voice is languishing in prison. We all should work to get him out.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org and ThirdAct.org. His most recent book is "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?." He also authored "The End of Nature," "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," and "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

90+ Groups Warn 'Kids Online Safety Act' Could Have 'Damaging' Effects

"Congress needs to pass real laws that rein in the abuses of Big Tech and protect everyone's privacy and human rights rather than using kids as pawns to advance poorly drafted legislation in order to score political points," said one critic.

Jessica Corbett ·


'No F*cking Excuse': Outrage in Houston Over Officials' Late Notice of Boil Water Alert

"Would have been nice to know BEFORE my little girl showered, drank water from the tap, and brushed her teeth this evening," said one mother after authorities took at least six hours to notify more than 2 million residents of the advisory.

Brett Wilkins ·


Inspired by Starbucks Organizing Wins, Peet's Coffee Workers File for Union Elections

"We deserve a say in how our workplace is run and we deserve to be fairly compensated for the value we create," said one Peet's employee.

Jake Johnson ·


Rev. Barber Breaks Down Why Democrats Must Engage With Low-Wealth Voters

In future elections, said the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, Democrats must "focus clearly and intensely on poor and low-wealth voters who tend to, when they vote, vote progressive if they're targeted."

Julia Conley ·


Great Barrier Reef Belongs on World Heritage 'In Danger' List: UNESCO

"The path to saving the Great Barrier Reef is narrow, but it exists," said one observer. "Strong and rapid action can produce results."

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo